Thursday, September 16, 2010

Armchair Sociology: Of Saggin' Pants, Seven Boys Named James, the Cool Pose, and The People's Court

I love The People's Court for on that show one never knows when there will be a gem that demonstrates the problematic intersections of race, class, gender, and culture.

So a teenage boy gets involved in a juvenile rite of passage, embarrasses his father, and acting as a clique he and his brothers collectively show no shame for their stupid deeds. Moreover, dad walks a fine line between defending his progeny and forcing them to "man up."

The payoff to this twisted tale is in the details. All of said ign't children have the same name. Yes, seven kids (save for the one dead) are named "James." And no, dad is not George Forman. Said young ign'ts are caught because their saggin' pants may fall down, thus rendering them unable to flee. Who are they caught by? A six foot eight brother who is tired of ghetto nonsense. Dad is hustling and trying. Nonetheless, he can't win against the allure of ghetto street pirate culture and the need for a "man" to earn his bonafides by "tagging" his "street name" on an enraged homeowner's property.

In keeping with our shared tradition of armchair sociology I offer a fitting reflection from the New York Times on Dr. Richard Major's concept of "the cool pose" and its relationship to black masculinity--a more than fair accompaniment to the above bit of People's Court justice.

Black Scientists Study the 'Pose' Of the Inner City

Dr. Majors's book "Cool Pose: The Dilemmas of Black Manhood in America," written with Dr. Janet Mancini Billson, an executive officer at the American Sociological Association in Washington, is part of the most recent wave of research on black urban youth. The book, published this month by Lexington Press, is based largely on intensive interviews by Dr. Majors and on a six-year study of 60 black teen-agers in Boston, conducted by researchers, including Dr. Billson, at the Harvard School of Education. 'To Appear in Control'

The cool pose is a set of language, mannerisms, gestures and movements that "exaggerate or ritualize masculinity," Dr. Majors said. "The essence of cool is to appear in control, whether through a fearless style of walking, an aloof facial expression, the clothes you wear, a haircut, your gestures or the way you talk. The cool pose shows the dominant culture that you are strong and proud, despite your status in American society."

Flashy or provocative clothes are part of the cool pose. An unbuckled belt, expensive sneakers and thick gold chains, for example, are part of the cool look.

Some elements of the cool pose have been analyzed in terms of kinesics, the subtleties of body movements. One is a distinctive swaggering gait, almost a walking dance, which can include tilting the head to one side while one arm swings to the side with the hand slightly cupped while the other hand hangs to the side or is in the pocket.

Other aspects of cool pose are now widely imitated in white culture, according to Dr. Majors's book. These include rap and the elaborate handshakes, like the high-five popularized by athletes.

The cool pose is by no means found among the majority of black men but is particularly common among inner-city black youth as a tactic for psychological survival to cope with such rejections as storekeepers who refuse to buzz them into a locked shop.

For a young black man whose prospects in life are poor at best, the cool pose is empowering, Dr. Majors said. "He can appear competent and in control in the face of adversity," he said. "It may be his only source of dignity and worth, a mask that hides the sting of failure and frustration."

The cool pose appeals, too, as a sign of manliness. "Lots of inner-city black boys live in a world with few men around," Dr. Poussaint said. "They are struggling to find ways to be a man. Adopting the cool pose is a way to show their maleness."

Dr. Staples said: "Much of cool pose is ritualistic imitation of peers. If you're not seen as cool, you're an outsider. It's a way to be included."

But the cool pose has its negative side. "Though it's a source of pride and identity, the cool pose is dysfunctional in some ways," Dr. Billson said. "It also means you may not be able to back down from a fight or apologize to your girlfriend when you've done something hurtful."

Another drawback of the cool pose is that it is often misread by whites. A 1990 article in the journal Black Issues in Higher Education by Ed Wiley 3d, its assistant managing editor, described how white teachers and principals interpret the cool pose as aggressive or intimidating. It suggests that this cultural misinterpretation is one reason black boys are suspended more frequently and for longer periods of time, and are more likely to be assigned to remedial classes.

"What black males see as cool, as being suave and debonair, can be read by whites as signifying irresponsibility, shiftlessness or unconcern," Dr. Majors said.

The unflappable mask donned with the cool pose often becomes a psychological reality, with young black men unable to let down their emotional guard even with those closest to them. That stance, Dr. Majors said, means "some black males have difficulty disclosing their deepest feelings even to their best friends and girlfriends."

Dr. Majors cautions that the theory is not meant as the whole explanation for the behavior of black men but is just one of many insights needed to understand their problems better. Dr. Majors is a leader in the organization of a new group, the National Council for African-American Men, founded in 1990, to further such research. This summer it will publish the first issue of an academic journal, The Journal of African-American Male Studies.


The Ghetto Intellectual™ said...

The agenda behind the "cool pose" research is to figure out how to get inner-city men to go along with the global system of white domination. Never does the author attempt to critique mainstream society. Middle class whiteness is deemed normative and desirable.kzs

chaunceydevega said...

Read through our site. We are all over the normativity of whiteness. But, I hope you are not suggesting that sagging pants and ghetto ign't behaviors are somehow equivalent to "blackness" or helpful adaptive strategies that have any purchase beyond a 3 block radius?

Remember the "respectable" in respectable negroes, we are not interested in legitimating ghetto related behaviors and pathologies. Nor do we give truck, aid, or comfort to white supremacy be it from the Left or Right.

The Ghetto Intellectual™ said...

Peace Chauncy. I didn't mention or imply anything about specific behaviors and I am happy to hear of your critiques of white normativity. As I noted in my post, my commentary is aimed explicitly at what I think the so-called "cool pose" (See also Orlando Patterson) theorists are up to.

I would say sagging is an example of counter-culture, an expression of dissent (I use "dissent" broadly, not in its political sense). But whatever sagging might or might not be I am not interesting in policing what people wear beyond advising a brotha to pull his pants up for a job interview.

Its a fad. It will go away. Folks will find some other target of ghetto scorn.

The alleviation of the white pathology of odious oppression--recall that this generation of youth followed the brutal attacks on black power--will result in more "acceptable" behaviors and fewer black pathologies. Not the other way around. kzs

Lady Zora, Chauncey DeVega, and Gordon Gartrelle said...


I appreciate your comments. What is your critique of Patterson? I have read his work and seen him speak on several occasions. I am with him on his NY Times piece (I often quote from it on the site), but less supportive on what seems at time his apologies (when I have seen him speak) for white racism. Maybe apology is too strong a word, perhaps "nuancing of" is better.

How much does a conscious agency have to play into this? If a brother is walking around with his ashy butt showing and can barely walk--reduced to a human-waddling--how much dissent is present? Isn't said brother just doing what he think his boys and the women he is attracted to find compelling?


Anonymous said...

@Ghetto Intellectual:

"It's just a fad." When, oh Lord, when will it end? It seems like we've all had to see this clownish clothing (I can't help but think of Dick VanDyke dancing with penguins in "Mary Poppins") style for at least a decade, with no signs that anyone is pulling up their pants.

Maybe if the establishment appropriated it- picture investment bankers and Republican politicians walking around with their pants a half mast.

The Ghetto Intellectual™ said...

@ Anon-- LOL! Yeah, no doubt. Sagging looks ridiculous to my eyes. But so did my earring to my mom's eyes. And so did the zoot suit back in the day. But at least you could walk in zoot suit. LOL! But yeah, I just think there is a lot more going on. (see below).

@ LZCDVGG-- I have HUGE problems with Patterson's scholarship. The Times piece is racist. OP's use of "culture" is very simplistic, old school, and dare I say racist. OP is out of touch. Have a look at this passage from his essay:

My favorite is Jim Crow, that deeply entrenched set of cultural and institutional practices built up over four centuries of racist domination and exclusion of blacks by whites in the South. Nothing could have been more cultural than that. And yet America was able to dismantle the entire system within a single generation, so much so that today blacks are now making a historic migratory shift back to the South, which they find more congenial than the North.


Does OP really think that the impact of hundreds of years of oppression was (a) "dismantled" in a "single generation"and that the (b) deep psychological trauma impacting all Americans--but especially the pathology of white normativity that he refuses to analyze--would dissipate along with Jim Crow?? [I would add (c) was the system dismantled or tweaked? but that is a another discussion.] 

There are lots of solid critiques of the "culture of poverty" approach to social studies online. Suffice it to say--and I don't think this shows up much in the critiques--structurally speaking, OP's list of cultural deficits functions in nearly the same way as the "white mans burden" rhetoric espoused by white people at the dawn of colonialism in Africa. I suspect that Orlando's critique is more about Orlando and the white people who sign off on his sizable Harvard checks.

Re: "agency." Obviously people consciously put their pants on. Purposeful action (agency) matters. But that is the easy part of the equation. The reasons and motivations are complex and rooted in oppression and marginalization. Specifically, the brutal government-sponsored attacks on black youth radicalism in the 60s. How is that Orlando can actually mention the 60s in his essay and not mention the government-sponsored assassinations and other vicious attacks? How could he not mention Fred Hampton and Mark Clark? Maybe, just maybe, Orlando is a "good" sociologist and a poor historian. Yeah. That might be true, but the fact of the matter is that many of our black scholars are not committed to black liberation. That are not even committed to honesty and integrity. They're master is tenure and white interests.

Most of our youth don't know that much about details of the generation that preceded them. But some of them are more cognizant of the history and deep structure of oppression than others. However, it takes careful listening to actually discern what they are saying. One example from the movie industry is Rize. If you get time, go back and listen to what these brilliant young black people from Watts, Compton and Inglewood are saying. I think they are far more illuminating than Patterson could ever imagine being.